When a loved one is sick, we drop everything to play nurse. We cook, we clean, we coddle. We do everything we can to ensure that they’re taken care of, regardless of our other responsibilities and even our own well-being.
But what happens when that loved one isn’t suffering from the flu or a stomach bug? What happens when that loved one doesn’t have a broken leg or a migraine? What happens when that loved one has a chronic illness and our role as nurse-cook-housekeeper-therapist is never-ending?
There’s a name for what happens: caregiver burnout.
What Is Caregiver Burnout?
The exhaustion you’re feeling, the despair, the anger, the hopelessness—all these emotions are symptoms of caregiver burnout. That’s the clinical term for a state commonly experienced by many long-term caregivers, which is also called compassion fatigue. It happens when we do more caregiving work than we’re reasonably able to for an extended period of time.
It’s possible for burnout to spiral into depression, which can manifest in reckless, neglectful or abusive behavior. In addition to harming the caregiver, compassion fatigue can also hurt the patient. That’s why it’s essential to maintain positivity in your life and to manage the stress that accompanies caregiving.
How to Prevent Caregiver Burnout
The key to staying positive, preserving your sense of self, and continuing to effectively care for your chronically ill loved one is to counteract the different causes of compassion fatigue. You know what they say: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Here are Five Ways to Be a Better, Happier, Healthier Caregiver:
1. Separate the Different Roles You Play
One of the largest factors in triggering caregiver fatigue is that you might blur the lines between your role as a caregiver and your role as a spouse (or a daughter or a mother or a friend—whichever relationship to your patient suits your circumstances). You went into caregiving giving it your all and ignored your own needs to fulfill the other relationship you had with your loved ones.
It’s never too late to re-establish these two distinct roles. It’s not selfish to require that a portion of your interactions with your loved one is as a significant other rather than as a nurse. This will require a serious conversation that focuses on how you’re feeling and what you need. It might be helpful to schedule dates during which you aren’t the caregiver.
2. Recalibrate Your Expectations
It’s nice to be thanked for the work you do. In most situations, after all, we expect gratitude. With 24/7 caregiving, though, often the thank yous go unsaid. This is especially true when your loved one is struggling with debilitating or degrading symptoms, including mental health problems like depression, which are common in those with chronic illnesses.
The truth is that positivity is often hard to come by. Often, that’s the reality of chronic and progressive diseases. While it’s fair to ask for a few words of thanks, it’s unrealistic to expect it. Rather than noticing when the gratitude is missing from your patient’s words or actions, try to correct your thoughts. Think of your caregiving work as a task rather than a favor.
3. Set Boundaries and Outline Responsibilities
If you’ve taken the lead in caring for your family member or friend, it can be difficult to cede control. It only grows harder as time goes by. However, you can’t do this on your own. Even delegating tasks to others can wear on you when you’ve been doing it 24/7/365.
Put an end to directing the work—or putting all the burden on your own shoulders—by divvying up all the responsibilities and chores that come with taking care of someone. Between other family members, friends, government and community resources and hired help, you can lighten your own load.
You also need to put boundaries on your own personal time. This might include scheduling a day, a night or a weekend or longer away from your caregiving duties. Remember, you need time to recharge, to take care of yourself and to enjoy your life.
1. Practice Mindfulness
Taking time for yourself, for recharging and enjoying life, ought to include a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is a calm, intentional focus inward on how you’re feeling. It’s a fantastic way to keep tabs on your own mental health and physical wellness.
It also doesn’t have to be a long and involved ritual. Try sitting down for a few minutes every day when you can be alone in a quiet place. It can be in the bathroom after you brush your teeth or in your bed at night before you go to sleep. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and check in with how you feel. Ask yourself questions: How did the day go? What did you accomplish? What is making you happy? What is making you feel bad? What do you hope will happen tomorrow? What have you done for you? Are you taking care of yourself? Do you feel taken care of?
If any problems crop up, you don’t have to fix them right away. Acknowledging them in the moment is enough. If you’re feeling unwell, make appointments with your own doctors or with others you can depend on to step into the role as caregiver while you regain your health.
2. Create Your Own Support System
As a caregiver, you’re an essential part of your patient’s support system. Even though you aren’t the one with the chronic illness, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t in need of a support system, too. Yours just might look a little different.
Enlist friends that you can count on to take care of you while you care for your loved one. Having someone to cook you dinner, tidy up your house and take you out to the movies can be exactly what you need to remain positive, no matter what caregiving sends your way.
Brenda Kimble is a writer and caregiver based in Austin, TX. In her spare time, she enjoys blogging to support local causes and connecting with others in her field. Outside of her work, Brenda loves doing yoga, completing new DIY projects around her home, as well as spending time with her husband and three children.